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Competition, Cooperation, and the Selfish Gene

Richard Dawkins has one of the best-selling books of all time for a serious piece of scientific writing.

Often labeled “pop science”, The Selfish Gene pulls together the “gene-centered” view of evolution: It is not really individuals being selected for in the competition for life, but their genes. The individual bodies (phenotypes) are simply carrying out the instructions of the genes. This leads most people to a very “competition focused” view of life. But is that all?


More than 100 years before The Selfish Gene, Charles Darwin had famously outlined his Theory of Natural Selection in The Origin of Species.

We’re all hopefully familiar with this concept: Species evolve over long periods time through a process of heredity, variation, competition, and differential survival.

The mechanism of heredity was invisible to Darwin, but a series of scientists, not without a little argument, had figured it out by the 1970’s: Strands of the protein DNA (“genes”) encoded instructions for the building of physical structures. These genes were passed on to offspring in a particular way – the process of heredity. Advantageous genes were propagated in greater numbers. Disadvantageous genes, vice versa.

The Selfish Gene makes a particular kind of case: Specific gene variants grow in proportion to a gene pool by, on average, creating advantaged physical bodies and brains. The genes do their work through “phenotypes” – the physical representation of their information. As Helena Cronin would put in her book The Ant and the Peacock, “It is the net selective value of a gene's phenotypic effect that determines the fate of the gene.”

This take of the evolutionary process became influential because of the range of hard-to-explain behavior that it illuminated.

Why do we see altruistic behavior? Because copies of genes are present throughout a population, not just in single individuals, and altruism can cause great advantages in those gene variants surviving and thriving. (In other words, genes that cause individuals to sacrifice themselves for other copies of those same genes will tend to thrive.)

Why do we see more altruistic behavior among family members? Because they are closely related, and share more genes!

Many problems seemed to be solved here, and the Selfish Gene model became one for all-time, worth having in your head.

However, buried in the logic of the gene-centered view of evolution is a statistical argument. Gene variants rapidly grow in proportion to the rest of the gene pool because they provide survival advantages in the average environment that the gene will experience over its existence. Thus, advantageous genes “selfishly” dominate their environment before long. It's all about gene competition.

This has led many people, some biologists especially, to view evolution solely through the lens of competition. Unsurprisingly, this also led to some false paradigms about a strictly “dog eat dog” world where unrestricted and ruthless individual competition is deemed “natural”.

But what about cooperation?


The complex systems researcher Yaneer Bar-Yam argues that not only is the Selfish Gene a limiting concept biologically and possibly wrong mathematically (too complex to address here, but if you want to read about it, check out these pieces), but that there are more nuanced ways to understand the way competition and cooperation comfortably coexist. Not only that, but Bar-Yam argues that this has implications for optimal team formation.

In his book Making Things Work, Bar-Yam lays out a basic message: Even in the biological world, competition is a limited lens through which to see evolution. There’s always a counterbalance of cooperation.

Counter to the traditional perspective, the basic message of this and the following chapter is that competition and cooperation always coexist. People see them as opposing and incompatible forces. I think that this is a result of an outdated and one-sided understanding of evolution…This is extremely useful in describing nature and society; the basic insight that “what works, works” still holds. It turns out, however, that what works is a combination of competition and cooperation.

Bar-Yam uses the analogy of a sports team which exists in context of a sports league – let’s say the NBA. Through this lens we can see why players, teams, and leagues compete and cooperate. (The obvious analogy is that genes, individuals, and groups compete and cooperate in the biological world.)

In general, when we think about the conflict between cooperation and completion in team sports, we tend to think about the relationships between the players on a team. We care deeply about their willingness to cooperate and we distinguish cooperative “team players” from selfish non-team players, complaining about the latter even when their individual skill is formidable.

The reason we want players to cooperate is so that they can compete better as a team. Cooperation at the level of the individual enables effective competition at the level of the group, and conversely, the competition between teams motivates cooperation between players. There is a constructive relationship between cooperation and competition when they operate at different levels of organization.

The interplay between levels is a kind of evolutionary process where competition at the team level improves the cooperation between players. Just as in biological evolution, in organized team sports there is a process of selection of winners through competition of teams. Over time, the teams will change how they behave; the less successful teams will emulate strategies of teams that are doing well.

At every level then, there is an interplay between cooperation and competition. Players compete for playing time, and yet must be intensively cooperative on the court to compete with other teams. At the next level up, teams compete with each other for victories, and yet must cooperate intensively to sustain a league at all.

They create agreed upon rules, schedule times to play, negotiate television contracts, and so on. This allows the league itself to compete with other leagues for scarce attention from sports fans. And so on, up and down the ladder.

Competition among players, teams, and leagues is certainly a crucial dynamic. But it isn’t all that’s going on: They’re cooperating intensely at every level, because a group of selfish individuals loses to a group of cooperative ones.

And it is the same among biological species. Genes are competing with each other, as are individuals, tribes, and species. Yet at every level, they are also cooperating. The success of the human species is clearly due to its ability to cooperate in large numbers; and yet any student of war can attest to its deadly competitive nature. Similar dynamics are at play with ants, rats, and chimpanzees, among other species of insect and animal. It’s a yin and yang world.

Bar-Yam thinks this has great implications for how to build successful teams.

Teams will improve naturally – in any organization – when they are involved in a competition that is structured to select those teams that are better at cooperation. Winners of a competition become successful models of behavior for less successful teams, who emulate their success by learning their strategies and by selecting and trading team members.

For a business, a society, or any other complex system made up of many individuals, this means that improvement will come when the system’s structure involves a completion that rewards successful groups. The idea here is not a cutthroat competition of teams (or individuals) but a competition with rules that incorporate some cooperative activity with a mutual goal.

The dictum that “politics is the art of marshaling hatreds” would seem to reflect this notion: A non-violent way for competition of cooperative groups for dominance. As would the incentive systems of majorly successful corporations like Nucor and the best hospital systems, like the Mayo Clinic. Even modern business books are picking up on it.

Individual competition is important and drives excellence. Yet, as Bar-Yam points out, it’s ultimately not a complete formula. Having teams compete is more effective: You need to harness competition and cooperation at every level. You want groups pulling together, creating emerging effects where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (a recurrent theme throughout nature).

You should read his book for more details on both this idea and the concept of complex systems in general. Bar-Yam also elaborated on his sports analogy in a white-paper here. If you're interested in complex systems, check out this post on frozen accidents. Also, for more on creating better groups, check out how Steve Jobs did it.